(CNN) — As part of a small subset of the pop-culture universe that thought “Stranger Things” was nice but nothing special, the second season provoked some trepidation. How can one characterize whether the Emmy-nominated Netflix phenom lives up to the hype when you felt it was overhyped in the first place?
The result is a second season that replicates and, indeed, enhances the show’s central charms — its group of pubescent nerds, and nostalgic sense of time and place — while still feeling less compelling with its teenage contingent. All told, it’s an impressive follow-up, if one perhaps burdened by expectations raised by the over-the-moon reaction, to couch it in the fantasy of the era, to the debut.
“Stranger Things 2” has a fair amount of work to do given where season one ended, and that’s accomplished pretty seamlessly. The five boys, for starters, have a new girl, Max (Sadie Sink), to trigger their curiosity and confound them, albeit without quite the impact as the telekinetically gifted Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown), whose return has already been teased, and whose plot is easily the best thing about this second flight.
Meanwhile, Nancy (Natalia Dyer) is still dealing with guilt regarding her friend Barb, Will (Noah Schnapp) is experiencing after-effects of his time in the Upside Down, and his mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) is wracked with concern about him, even as she tests whether it’s possible to have a life of her own.
The Duffer Brothers, who created the show, waste little time setting the scene, as the camera reveals Reagan/Bush yard signs and “Terminator” marquees. It’s a time of “Ghostbusters” Halloween costumes, when strange doings around the town are seen by some (in what feels like a dual nod to “Red Dawn” and “The Americans”) as evidence of a Soviet invasion.
It’s easy to luxuriate in the atmosphere the show conjures, in its knowing references to the pop culture of that moment — from movies to TV to video games to Radio Shack — without fully buying into all of the individual parts.
Although the primary plot is plenty binge-worthy, the series still requires patience with its less-compelling character beats to get there. To its credit, the show steadily builds in intensity, again cleverly uses its cliffhangers to pull viewers from one episode into the next and exhibits an underlying sweetness, especially vis-à-vis the younger kids.
There are also nice additions to the cast, among them Paul Reiser and Sean Astin — offering mid-1980s ties to “Aliens” and “The Goonies,” respectively — while the show continues to borrow (the polite Hollywood term for it) from the best, including a prominent ’70s science-fiction artifact.
With its return timed to Halloween, “Stranger Things 2” provides what amounts to a bookend to a resurgence of nostalgia that spiked during the summer in the form of blockbuster results for Stephen King’s “It,” another one of the sources the series lovingly embraces. (Finn Wolfhard, who plays Mike, stars in both, making him, along with the again-terrific Brown, the “it” kid of the moment.)
“I will never, ever let anything bad happen to you ever again,” Joyce tells Will, as he grapples with his latest ordeal.
As long as “Stranger Things” stays this firmly embedded in the cultural zeitgeist, that’s one of those promises that she — and for that matter, all the adults — will be hard-pressed to keep.
“Stranger Things 2” premieres Oct. 27 on Netflix.